Vengeance and family are the themes of Patriot Games, the first sequel in Paramount's Jack Ryan franchise. A new star (Harrison Ford replacing Alec Baldwin as Ryan) and director (Philip Noyce taking the baton from John McTiernan) proved the ongoing viability of the series with this more commercial (but still satisfying) action-oriented outing.
This time, Dr. John Patrick Ryan (now a history teacher at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis) becomes embroiled in a blood feud while in London to deliver a speech at the Royal Navy Academy. As his wife Cathy (Anne Archer) and daughter Sally (Thora Birch) look on, Ryan single-handedly foils an assasination attempt on royal cousin Lord Holmes (James Fox) and his family. It's a thrilling opening, later parsed by Ryan in a monologue highlighting Ford's subtle style. "It just pissed me off. I couldn't just stand there and watch them shoot those people right in front of me. It was rage. Pure rage."
Rage is also the word for Sean Miller (Sean Bean), the only terrorist taken alive. "You stuck your nose in where it didn't belong," he spits at Ryan. "And now you've killed my baby brother." And so begins a battle of wills between a man scarred by the loss of family and another who must fiercely protect his own. Politics become involved in the form of IRA leader Paddy O'Neil (Richard Harris), who insists that the terrorists were an ultraviolent faction not authorized by the IRA, but the story is wholly driven by Miller's attempts to kill the Ryan clan. This time, as they say, it's personal.
Because this is Clancy, Patriot Games also shows an interest in the workings of government, military and paramilitary organizations, with a special emphasis on the role of technology. This film's most memorable contribution in this area is a sequence in which Ryan—now back on duty at CIA HQ in Langley—watches by live infrared satellite feed as an SAS team carries out an operation in North Africa. The eerie visuals and Ryan's evident discomfort at his remote influence give an emotional perspective on modern warfare with a minimum of dialogue. Screenplay credit goes to W. Peter Iliff and Donald Stewart, the latter providing a link of talent to The Hunt for Red October.
An on-screen link to the previous film comes by way of James Earl Jones, who reprises his role as Admiral Greer. Also in the supporting cast are Samuel L. Jackson as Ryan's buddy from Annapolis, femme fatale Polly Walker (Rome), Patrick Bergin, and Ted Raimi. This time, though, it's Ryan's turn to shine. Ford gives one of his most commanding performances outside of a Lucas production, establishing an action formula Ford would repeat in The Devil's Own, Air Force One and Firewall: a family man fiercely protecting his brood. The star convincingly points an angry finger and grabs at chests in verbal face-offs that predict 24's Jack Bauer; Ford's also a well-known master of the messy and therefore viscerally exciting screen brawl. Ford even makes The Cat in the Hat intense while at Sally's bedside.
Noyce and DP Donald McAlpine confidently shoot the bodily and vehicular stunts, at least the assassination attempts (there's a second one at the film's midpoint). If the rainy, windy, fiery climax is somewhat less exciting, know that it's the somewhat desperate result of reshoots after the film's original showdown was deemed unsatisfying by bloodthirsty preview audiences. The dark-and-stormy-night finish degrades the film's already tenuous credibility, but it acknowledges what the audience wants on a gut level: the villains must get theirs, spectacularly. It's a shame that Noyce staged the final moments so obviously, but Patriot Games remains a smooth commercial action film.
One of four new Blu-Ray releases of the Jack Ryan films, Patriot Games returns to home video with a considerable upgrade in picture quality. The image has its problems, including light dirt and edge enhancement; the nighttime climax at the Ryan homestead has a dull, grainy appearance by which detail suffers a bit. Home-theater purists can carp about the after-effects of digital sharpening, but as a frequent home-theater viewer of this film, I can say without hesitation that it hasn't looked so good since I saw it in the movie theatre sixteen years ago. The home-theater illusion is completed by a strong Dolby True-HD 5.1 track that well serves the dialogue and score and also rocks your world on cue.
As on the DVD release, there's no commentary by director Philip Noyce, though he does participate in "Patriot Games Up Close" (25:14), an engaging retrospective from the 2003 disc. Also on hand to share their memories are Harrison Ford, producer Mace Neufeld, co-screenwriter Peter Iliff, Anne Archer, James Earl Jones, and associate producer Liz Kern. Along with behind-the-scenes footage and an explanation of the casting, we get interesting insights into Ford's infamously hands-on process.
Lastly, we get the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:31), thoughtfully presented in HD. Those who haven't yet taken the plunge for the Jack Ryan films on home video now have especially good reason to do so; even those who have will want to consider upgrading for an image that's considerably sharper.
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